John Jost, a professor of psychology and political science at NYU, and various colleagues over the years have developed a theory called “system justification” that shows how people are “motivated to defend, bolster, and rationalize the social systems that affect them — to see the status quo as good, fair, legitimate, and desirable,” because it serves their own internal needs and desires as humans. It helps them “manage uncertainty and threat and smooth out social relationships,” and “enables people to cope with and feel better about the societal status quo and their place in it,” as the authors write.
People do not always defend an unjust status quo and system justification varies across groups and situations. Similarly, system justification may be motivated by different reasons for those who are relatively advantaged or disadvantaged within society. But for most of us, it appears that there’s a powerful need in our own lives to reduce difficult feelings and anxieties when confronting the limitations of our social and economic order. As Jost and his co-authors note:
In several studies we find that giving people the opportunity to justify the system does indeed lead them to feel better and more satisfied and to report feeling more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions (e.g., Jost et al., 2008; Wakslak et al., 2007). Furthermore, chronically high system-justifiers, such as political conservatives, arehappier (as measured in terms of subjective well-being) than are chronically low system-justifiers, such as liberals, leftists, and others who are more troubled by the degree of social and economic inequality in our society (Napier & Jost, 2008a).
The hedonic benefits of system justification, however, come with a cost in terms of decreased potential for social change and the remediation on of inequality. Wakslak and colleagues (2007) demonstrated thatsystem-justifying ideologies, whether measured or manipulated through a mindset-priming technique, do indeed serve to reduce emotional distress — including negative affect in general and guilt in particular — but they also reduce “moral outrage.” This last consequence is particularly important, because moral outrage motivates people to engage in helping behavior and to support social change (Carlson & Miller, 1987; Montada & Schneider, 1989). Thus, the reduction in moral outrage made people less inclined to help those who are disadvantaged, measured in terms of research participants’ degree of support for and willingness to volunteer for or donate to a soup kitchen, a crisis hotline, and tutoring or job training programs for the underprivileged (see also Jost et al., 2008).
Why Aren\’t More Americans Fired Up About Inequality? | ThinkProgress.
Video: Interview with John Jost